Nick Moss

Nick Moss

Nick Moss is an ex-prisoner, published poet and playwright. 

'Arty art screws you in the end; always be on guard against it.' Philip Guston, Claudette Johnson, Re/Sisters, Nicole Eisenman
Tuesday, 28 November 2023 14:28

'Arty art screws you in the end; always be on guard against it.' Philip Guston, Claudette Johnson, Re/Sisters, Nicole Eisenman

Published in Visual Arts

Nick Moss reviews exhibitions by Philip Guston, Claudette Johnson, Re/Sisters, and Nicole Eisenman. Image above: Nicole Eisenman, The Triumph of Poverty, 2009, courtesy of Leo Koenig Inc., New York.

When the Frieze Art Fair is in full swing, with Cork Street in Mayfair lined with chauffeur-driven Cullinans and Maybachs, with blacked-out windows and bodyguards/bag carriers in Bottega Veneta suits and shades, blocking gallery doors, and the Goodman Gallery boasting that it flogged El Anatsui’s new work for $1.9 million, the idea that art might provide a platform for political intervention may appear entirely deluded.

The four exhibitions reviewed here are therefore reviewed together as each shows how the possibility of an artistic practice that engages its lifeworld head-on (and refuses the attempted closure of any way of conceiving of the times as other than how they already are and will henceforth always be) might be pursued. All of the artists reviewed here practice “political art” as William Kentridge defines it: “an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay.”

Philip Guston at the Tate Modern, to February 2024

Phillip Guston’s work will be the most immediately familiar. The Tate's rousing exhibition, Guston’s first major UK retrospective in 20 years, displays over 100 paintings and drawings from across Guston’s 50-year career, from his early years and political activism, his celebrated period of abstraction, and his deliberately confrontational later works.

Born Phillip Goldstein, his early influences included cartoon imagery and Mexican muralism, and a preoccupation with Uccello and Piero della Francesca and the problem of the picture plane (or “place” as he called it , “an illusive, imaginary place where forms of this world, trees, people, furniture, objects momentarily come to rest...Not “come to rest”. Pause.”)

Initially, under the influence of Diego Rivera and David Siquiero, and of the Mexican Muralist movement, Guston travelled with his friends Reuben Kadish and Jules Langsner to Morelia, where they were commissioned to produce the 1000 sq. ft. mural The Struggle Against Terror (a projection of which features in the exhibition.)

In 1935 he changed his name from Phillip Goldstein to Philip Guston and moved to New York to work on murals for the government-funded Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project.
He painted a mural in the US Post Office in Georgia - Early Main Service and the Construction of Railroads, and others in Washington DC. Throughout, his worked carried echoes not only of the Muralists, but in its colour scheme particularly, the painters of the Italian Renaissance – with Piero della Francesca a particular source of inspiration. In the late 1940s and early fifties, Guston entered a "period a destroying everything. Everything seemed unsuccessful to me."

This crisis (of figuration, ultimately) related to his exposure to images and films coming back from the concentration camps . "The forms I wanted to make couldn’t take the shape of things and figures." It was resolved by a move towards abstraction – Guston became a key painter in the New York School alongside Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko.

1Passage resized 

Passage, 1957

Of the works from this period featured here, Zone has a supernal glow, and could be patch of fabric snatched from della Francesca's red bedspread in Visons of Constantine. Similarly, Passage, from 1957, has Guston trying to work towards the exemplar of the colour "blue" – arriving at something that mirrors closely the blue of the dress in the Madonna del Parto.

Guston has described della Francesca's paintings as capturing the "wonder of what it is that is being seen" and yet also "the apprehension that everything may again move." In his abstract works, Guston is chasing the same thing: a way of painting where "there seems to be no structure at all. No direction. We can move spatially, everywhere, as in life." For Guston this was a wonder, but also "the anxiety of painting" – painting as an absolute – just forms, colour, movement.

By the mid-60s, though, Guston had abandoned abstraction and turned back to figuration again, producing the works for which he is probably best known – his Klansman paintings, crudely drawn hooded figures which were dismissed as "Ku Klux Komix" when first exhibited.

 Painting etc resized

Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973

The Klansmen became part of the lexicon of shapes and forms he worked with repeatedly through to the end of his life – shoes, clocks, lightbulbs, cigarettes. We can see in the shoes a reference back to Van Gogh, and the iconography developed around cigarettes – in paintings like Smoking, Eating and Painting, Conversation and Smoking, Eating – a deliberate revelling in the corporeal, and an attempt to prove , after his rejection of abstraction, that "painting is 'impure'. It is the adjustment of 'impurities' which forces its continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden."

The paintings of piles of shoes and piles of legs are reflections on the images from the Holocaust that drove him to turn from figuration. It was perhaps a way of stating that the abject has to be portrayed crudely, cruelly – that if we sanctify images of terror we bleach them dry of their horror, depoliticise them. His Klansmen, meanwhile, are the American Everyman, the fool who believes in the Dream that's always promised but always deferred. "The KKK has haunted me since I was a boy in LA. In those years , they were there mostly to break strikes, and I drew and painted pictures of conspiracies and floggings, cruelty and evil."

Yet they are also comical figures in their Flintstone cars, driving everywhere and nowhere. Guston doesn’t let himself, or us, off the hook either. The painter is wearing a hood too. So, probably, is the viewer. We're all fucked and all fucked-up. That's why we're where we are – now take that fucking hood off and let's try again.

In 1970 he wrote "The total conformity of painting now that we see is absolutely deadening to my spirits. Its conventionality. Its domesticity." His work was produced always as a complete refusal of that conventionality, and a way out of the sober relentlessness of good taste. "If someone bursts out laughing in front of my painting, that is exactly what I want and expect."

Claudette Johnson at the Courtauld Gallery, to January 2024

Claudette Johnson's exhibition at The Courtauld Gallery, "Presence", embodies the idea of "presence" in two ways – the presence of the work as such, its scale, its power in the space it occupies, and the presence of work that features, as subjects, black men and black women, in a space where the subject on canvas is usually white, and more often than not, male.

Claudette Johnson was one of the pioneers of Black British art, showing her works alongside Lubaina Himid and Veronica Ryan. Exhibiting her work at the Black Art Convention in 1982, she stated that “Black women have been presented as people who did not have anything to offer in themselves but were just there to be looked at. I have tried in my own images to be very personal, and to talk from my own experience and nothing else, so I can be sure it’s honest and explore a side of Black women that isn’t often seen.”

Johnson sought not to shrug off the influence of painters like Manet, but to question how they saw the world they painted. The point she makes about painting from a point of view which is drawn from her own experience "and nothing else, so I can be sure it's honest" seems simple enough, but it explodes the hierarchy of representation in painting – who is seen and who is relegated to the background, who has standing and social capital, and who has none; who can afford to commission a portrait and who worked to produce the wealth that purchased the portrait. There is also a complacency that assumes once that question has been posed, it is thereby also answered, and we can all just move on. Claudette Johnson's works here don't grant us that comfort.

There has been a long silence around Johnson's work. As she has explained, between about 1990 and 2015 "there was a long period where I would have thought it was aggrandising to describe myself in that way, (as an artist.) I was producing much less. I was working full-time in a project for homeless people. I’d given up my studio. Art moved very far into the background.” It was only when she was contacted by Lubaina Himid to work on a group show alongside Ingrid Pollard and Helen Cammock that she was able to rebuild the mechanics of artistic production – studio, gallery etc. There followed due recognition for her early works and eventually the call to exhibit at The Courtauld.

There is a moment that Johnson seeks to capture in each of her works. In a Guardian interview she has explained it as “I had all these received, hypersexual images of Black women. But I realised that in my imagination there were different figures almost waiting to come out. A very centred figure, a figure that had her own agency, as opposed to being at the mercy of these stereotypes. It was a bit like that moment when we shifted from talking about ourselves as ‘coloured people’ to talking about ourselves as Black people."

2And I have my own business 

And I Have My Own Business In This Skin, 1982

These figures with their own agency are already fully realised in the early works, such as And I Have My Own Business In This Skin, from 1982, which uses geometric shapes to recover both Cubist technique and the black image from Picasso, and his own use of non-naturalistic images and techniques inspired by encounters with African art. This is explicit again in the later painting Standing Figure With African Masks, where an exquisitely powerful self-portrait in a naturalistic style is mirrored by a carved mask and a figure painted in the Cubist style of And I Have My Own Business.

But it is important not just to look for the politics of the paintings in their symbolism. The fact of the paintings, their beauty and their size, their dominance of the space, is also a political statement. And these are extraordinarily beautiful paintings. Johnson captures defiance, exhaustion, wistfulness, in a line. She has a way with the painting of flesh that is close to that of Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville, but is, while just as unflinching, somehow kinder.

She also does good hair, which is something too often neglected in portraiture. She catches the essential detail of a change of hairstyle, a change of colour, the way the hair hangs, or the stubble of a buzz cut, and uses how the hair falls to sketch the mood of the sitter in a very tender and non-judgemental way. Claudette Johnson's works deserve to be in the Courtauld not just for the moment of this wonderful exhibition, but permanently, to show the unseen in art, and the ahistorical nature of an art history that brackets out the question of who gets to be seen, and thereby colludes in the exclusion. It deserves its place there both as a rebuke and by right.


Trilogy (Part Two) Woman in Black, 1982

In Tendayi Sithole's Refiguring in Black (Polity 2023) he writes of "seeing things differently and deliberately, so from the black point of view." When Johnson talks of, and works through, questions "from my own experience and nothing else", this is what she means. Sithole develops his theme: "What does it mean to see clearly? To see clearly is not only to look. It is to have a point of view. It is to see dissimulation and to unmask its falsities, malice and pretences, to see clearly is to see differently. It is to see what is not seen. To see clearly is refiguring."
The paintings in "Presence" are works of refiguring, and works of restoring –both of black men and black women as subjects of figurative art, and of Claudette Johnson as a key figure in the development of figurative art per se.

Re/Sisters at the Barbican Gallery, to January 14, 2024

Re/Sisters, at the Barbican, is a group exhibition which shows how female artists have worked to demonstrate the links between gender and ecology. In any review of a group show, it is impossible to cover all the works in sufficient detail, so it is important to state that the key to all of the works on show is the remarkable prescience of the artists here, in identifying the link between misogyny, oppression and the despoliation of the plant.

There are works here from over 50 international women and gender non-conforming artists. These are angry works, compassionate but challenging, and all focused in various ways on establishing the connection between women's oppression, colonialism and the exploitation of indigenous lands and corresponding attempts to clear the lands of native peoples.

None of the artists here flinch from the challenge of exposing the ideology of "progress" behind which capital hides its willingness to sacrifice our futures to the pursuit of profit. These are artworks produced as protest, not artworld product.

 4. ReSisters A Lens on Gender and Ecology Installation view Barbican Art Gallery 5 Oct 2023 14 Jan 2024

ReSisters, A Lens on Gender and Ecology, Installation view

The works are displayed thematically across six sections, addressing in succession the politics of extraction; acts of protest and resistance; the labour of ecological care; environmental racism; and queerness and fluidity in the face of rigid social structures and hierarchies. Works on show include Agnes Dene's Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982) in which the artist planted a wheatfield across a two-acre site adjacent to Wall Street, as a way of symbolically reclaiming the land from capital; a collection of flyers and photographs from the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, and Ana Menieta's Earth-Body works, wherein in the first of these, Imágen de Yagul (Image from Yagul), 1973, Mendieta lay naked in a vacant grave at Yagul, was covered with white flowers and photographed.


Pamela Singh, Chipko Tree Huggers of the Himalayas #4, 1994

Other such works by Mendieta include her Untitled (Maroya) (Moon), 1982, which consisted of a vulva-like niche dug into a yard, filled with gunpowder, and ignited on moonlit nights. Anne Duk Hee Jordan 's film installation Ziggy and the Starfish (2018) shows hermaphroditic examples of aquatic life, drawing parallels with non-binary identity, and the Indigenous queer performance artist and activist Uýra (Brazil) uses their drag persona to transform into a hybrid plant-human organism and advocate for resistance to the devastation of the Amazon basin.

One point of particular interest is the extent to which so much of the work is performance-based. Much of the early practice of performance art was intended as a challenge to the commodification of artwork, and as a confrontation. Marina Abramovic and Yoko Ono, among others, have shown that there need not be a separation between performance and commodification, but the artists here all saw performance and video installations, and the incorporation of documentary materials into their works, as ways to keep open the vision of art as a source of utopian possibility. It's certainly the case that Ana Mendieta, for instance, saw her work as a refusal of art-as-commodity, given that so much of it – the blood works in particular – was not intended as exhibition but as contestation, an attempt to challenge and provoke and expose male/state violence.

As regards the prescience of the works, I'm reminded of how feminist theoreticians like Nancy Fraser and Kate Soper were consistent proponents of the link between environmental resistance, gender equality and social justice, at a time when so much of the left was still debating whether the climate crisis existed at all. Fraser describes capitalism as follows:

"The logic of economic production overrides that of social reproduction, destabilizing the very processes on which capital depends-compromising the social capacities, both domestic and public, that are needed to sustain accumulation over the long term. Destroying its own conditions of possibility, capital's accumulation dynamic mimics the ouroboros and eats its own tail." – Nancy Fraser, Cannibal Capitalism, Verso 2023

The works on show at the Barbican aim to show how that process plays out and the ecological crisis that results. They also show how we might find ways to resist and to live otherwise.

What Happened, Nicole Eisenman at the Whitechapel Gallery, to January 2024

Nicole Eisenman's retrospective at The Whitechapel Gallery perhaps brings us full circle, because like Philip Guston, she is avowedly a political artist and also one who scabrously resists the straitjacket (maybe we ought to say "Straight jacket") of artworld "good taste."

Eisenman's work takes inspiration from Guston and from Pieter Breugel the Elder, Hogarth and Goya and Renoir, but also from Tom of Finland, Fat Freddy's Cat, Mary Wings, Cath Jackson and Alison Bechdel (the cycle of influence with this latter trio runs, I'd say, both ways.)

All of these are chewed up and incorporated into a fantastic array of startingly alive and very funny images that flay at the dead flesh of Trumpian politics, misogyny, and generalised fearfulness. The key to Eisenman's work is that it is both funny and tragic, that in a painting like Fishing, for instance, when a group of lesbian fishers dangle a suited man over a hole in the ice, there is both a joyful world-turned-upside-down aspect to the scenario, but also, on the faces of some of the women, expressions that move between pensiveness and a kind of dread as to what, if anything at all, will happen next.

All of this is to suggest that substantive change is vital, necessary, but also that we cannot just wait on what comes after, as if agency is the property of some force outside ourselves.
The essential aspect of the paintings has to be worked for. At first glance they seem simply satirical, but just as in Hogarth, or George Grosz, the satirical brush paints a barbed life into every character, not just the obvious sitting target. These are paintings full of life, a fantastic celebration of polymorphous perversity and euphoric lesbian joy, but there also moments of profound melancholy and wistful pauses – as where Eisenman paints herself as Marvel's The Thing, receiving a letter that begins "Dear Obscurity..."

In the Bush years, she paints a small-town America knee-deep in shit. She gives us grotesque parades of patriots and good old boys, including an ass-backwards top-hatted Jester/ leader walking towards their own demise. There is a series of paintings that focus on how we make romantic/erotic connections, mediated but not fundamentally diluted by technology. Finally, we come to a large scale kinetic sculpture of a potter at a wheel, surrounded by her works. Some of the works look like junk, detritus, as if the production of the work itself is pointless. But there's also a bundle of dynamite, which suggests Eisenman is a long way from resigned as to the purpose of her work.

2009 BeerGardenWithUlrike Hall 2 copy scaled e1689762786475 1170x655

Beer Garden with Ulrike Hall

I want, though, to draw out the political significance of three of her quieter works. Biergarten at Night is a straightforward scene of friends gathered together as the title suggests (straightforward is a relative term here, as one figure is passionately kissing a death's head ) in New York, or Berlin, bohemians at play, relaxed, pissed. What matters is that the painting is a celebration of friendship, of comradeship, of sitting and drinking with like-minded people, sustaining each other, taking care of each other.

Another painting, Sloppy Bar Room Kiss, shows two lovers kissing, uncaring as to anything else going on around them. It’s a celebration of queer love, and like Biergarten at Night, also a celebration of being present in a place, being seen, occupying a space.

The political importance of this act is drawn out in The Abolitionists in the Park, which gives us a snapshot of the occupation of City Hall Park in New York by a coalition led by Black Lives Matter in 2020, following the police murder of George Floyd. It could be a scene from a late summer picnic. Friends and families eat pizza, talk, laugh. What counts is their being-there. Eisenman is celebrating presence as an act of resistance.

Claudette Johnson similarly offers presence as resistance, both in the gallery space and within the frame. In the Re/Sisters exhibition, the focus on Greenham Common makes the point again – being present-for others, as oneself, in defiance of the state may not be enough, but it’s a start. Meanwhile, El Anatsui crumples bottle tops into shimmering banners of red and gold and sells them for a million dollars. I think they're lovely and I don’t begrudge him, but we're a long way from the uselessness of art as subversion of commodity-fetishism.

I don’t suggest that the works discussed here pose an entire solution to the recovery of the utopian possibility of art, but they do suggest that political interventions through the medium of artistic production remain possible, and that Eisenman's bundle of dynamite may sometimes be disguised as a painting of a couple kissing in a bar. Let's give the last word, though, to Guston: "Arty art screws you in the end; always be on guard against it."

Class, history, and boxing: review of 'Crisis Actor' by Declan Ryan
Thursday, 14 September 2023 12:40

Class, history, and boxing: review of 'Crisis Actor' by Declan Ryan

Published in Poetry

In his 2010 review of Robert Hass’s The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems, the US poet Michael Robbins attacked Hass’s “dewy piety” which he identified as a complacent trait in much American poetry. “Like Mary Oliver, Billy Collins and Sharon Olds - in their different ways - Hass has made a career out of flattering middlebrow sensibilities with cheap mystery.” What is so often true for American laureates and their  academic progeny exists as an even worse tendency in the UK, where such pieties are pitched at the  level of the Hallmark greeting card, and poetry has become a consolatory pot-pourri.

Declan Ryan’s first collection points to a way of writing that “doesn’t kiss the boo-boo and make it all better” (Robbins again) and stands therefore as an alternative to so much of the dead-end dross of the poetry mainstream. Much of it is concerned with a subject which always riles the pacifistic middle-class-boxing- but others are autobiographical or eulogistic. For the most part they are pleasingly unsaccharine and technically astute.

Ryan was born in County Mayo and lives in London. The autobiographical poems are situated between these, and show an alertness to the onset of gentrification, and how it feels to be both part of and alienated from that influx. In “Sidney Road”, Ryan describes how:

...Rows of identikit SUVs

line the road in lieu of trees

I’ve seen cut back, then down.

and remarks that there are “too many rugby shirts around to feel comfortable.” The poem concludes with a snapshot of individual ennui captured with the adroitness of Larkin or Alun Lewis,a poet Ryan elsewhere pays homage to:

The months pile up since my last confession;

wheels spinning slowly, hazards on.

just low enough for running down the battery.

This is Ryan at his best, able to sketch without melodrama what Lewis drily called the “enmity within.”

“The Range” is the most extradordinary poem in the collection, combining a charting of familial distress, a heritage of poverty and institutional neglect, with a parallel commentary on Irish history, and a version of the 12th century poem Cumhthach Labbhras an Lonsa. The poem mourns the loss of Ryan’s maternal grandmother. It commences by noting “God Save All Here” scored into the metal of the family range:

...You only asked that He save you. All.

You are dead,as is your mother.

Bad luck has clung to your brother

like an impermeable caul

he couldn’t shake by getting out

Again, the exactness and skill facilitate the resonance of the poem. That “All” which denotes a whole way of life rooted not in self but family and community, and the “by getting out” which ambushes the preceding lines by introducing the emigrant’s hope as an instant unachievable dead-end. The poem’s second part then turns to consider Charles Stewart Parnell, “the Blackbird of Avondale”, Protestant President of the Irish Land League. Ryan employs a combined reference to James Joyce and the 1882 murders of Burke and Cavendish in his substitution of Joyce’s Fiendish Park for Phoenix Park, the events of which, with the Times’s printing of forged letters suggesting Parnell sympathised with the murders, provide a template for the Zinoviev letter four decades on. “Later”, Ryan tells us, Parnell “could not prevent scandalising “a noncomformist conscience;” his larks/ at Eltham almost vandalised/ Home Rule.” (The reference here is to Parnell being named as co-respondent in Kitty O’Shea’s divorce, and the Catholic church and Liberal nonconformism combining to denounce him as an adulterer.)

We can read this extended analogy as employing the figure of Parnell - the symbol of an Ireland united across the Catholic/Protestant divide - undone by religious bigotry and British skullduggery, such that the Irish state into which Ryan and his ancestors were born was caged by the Church and a State subsumed to it, so that emigration appeared the only route out. Ryan’s willingness to address all of this within one section of a longer poem, to begin the working-through of a complex history and to thereby make the reader have to also participate in the working-through, places him in such unfashionable but similarly dextrous company as northern Irish counterparts like Tom Paulin or Seamus Heaney.

What all this history comes to amount to, as Ryan shows us, is “betrayal”- not epically, but as the daily tragedy of working-class lives casually unvalued. “By the time he deigned to look for the real reason/ behind your winnowing it was everywhere/ The doctor told you that you’d lose your hair.”  “The Range” does something that’s all too rare-it sets the value of one “Mountain family. Wiped out” within the context of the wider socio-economic forces through which they lived and tried to make their own histories, and it does not allow the larger picture to overshadow the (ostensibly) smaller. “I could not live where the young leave before the old/ “God save all here” you wrote. You didn’t say from what.”

There are other poems, similarly themed, which show a sensitivity to the nuances and brutalities of class. “Fathers and Sons” shows us Ryan waiting for his dad to come home from work, “My tone brighter/ The further past 5pm”, dad with “hair flat against his head/ from the hard hat or the rain”. In “Bachelors”, men whose lives had been given over to  “digging footings/ a machine licence, sandwiches in the rain at teatime” now “break their hearts crying once or twice at an unlikely funeral”, before the seeming move towards the sentimental is sucker-punched by “All that sperm, useless as the priest’s, who eventually visits.”

“Crisis Actor” also contains a series of tender poems in remembrance of, variously, Nick Drake (who “hung a future on the stopped cogs/ of his alarm clock, then slept through it”) Alun Lewis, Ian Hamilton, Colin Falck, Alan Jenkins, Jonathan Rendell, and a musician-workmate who, on playing guitar, “held starlight in his hands/ and was translating it to bone.”

It’s Ryan’s boxing poems, though, which have attracted most attention. Boxing doesn’t fit with the polite conventions of London literary types. It’s “macho”, purportedly, which is an insult to great boxers like Katie Taylor and Christy Martin. I’ve always thought that the simple reason for the cultural flinch is because - a bit like ending conscription when they realised it meant angry unemployed people trained in combat skills - a section of the propertied class don’t like the idea of the working class being skilled at violence.

In essays on the subject, Ryan has shown a willingness to buy into some of the cliches writers always fall into at ringside. In his 2018 New Statesman article “A matter of life and death: why people are prepared to die (and kill) in the boxing ring”, he states for instance that boxers are taught to  “internalise a code that says you must be prepared to fight to a conclusion, even a fatal one.” This is, at best, hyperbolic nonsense, which Ryan knows is untrue. Being schooled to fight until the referee intervenes is not the same as being schooled to beat your opponent to death. The fatality rate in boxing (0.13 deaths per 1,000 participants per year) is lower than many other professional sports leagues such as football (1 death per every 939 players), hockey (1 death per every 573 players), or baseball (1 death per every 27 players). The boxing poems, though, are way better than this kind of stuff, and capture Ryan’s faith in the sport as (quoting Donovan Craig) “the only honest place.”

In “Ethiopia Shall Stretch Forth Her Hands” he runs the story of Joe Louis defeating Primo Carnera alongside the negotiations between Italy and Ethiopia at The Hague, then jumps to Martin Luther King telling of a young black man being subjected to poison gas execution in the southern US:

and the gas curled upward,

through the microphone came these words;

“Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis.”

Boxing, as a product of working-class skill and of resistance to poverty and discrimination, is inescapably political, and Ryan does full justice to it as such. He notes how “Louis will touch a glove to Carnera's lower back/ after the bell/ and  return to his corner/without celebration.”

And he leaves the significance of this gesture ambiguous. Is it a small intimation of recognition or as a result of the seven commandments Louis’s manager has asked him to adhere to: (“...never have his picture taken with a white woman/...never gloat over a fallen opponent”) in order to secure a title shot? Or, yet, a combination of the two?

In “The Resurrection of Diego “Chico” Corrales”, Ryan sets out the 2005 lightweight unification fight between Corrales and Castillo, with Corrales knocked down twice in the tenth before getting up to win the fight by stoppage. “He’s being borne aloft by his trainer and his cutman/ his arms stretched out crosswise/ celebrating coming back from the dead.” Corrales never won another fight, and died two years later in a motorbike crash. Rising from the dead once was miracle enough.

“My Son, the Heart of My Life” gives us a picture of Rocky Marciano, “almost every strike against him/ Two left feet/ Stoop-shouldered", hitting a custom-made 300 pound bag, jogging “ten miles of hill a day/ sprinting up and back/ dipping low to generate power.” Eventually, in 1951, he will defeat Joe Louis at Madison Square Gardens. It’s the description of Marciano’s training regime that’s key here. Boxing as process, boxing as an attempt to out-train chaos, until like Louis the fighter comes up against “time - the only unconquerable adversary - (which) will dull reflexes, calcify extremities and betray senses.” (A Matter of Life and Death, New Statesman 27 January 2018). For Marciano, time ran out at 46, dead when his private plane crashed. Ryan shows us the tale turned full circle, with Louis at Marciano’s funeral, kissing the lid of the closed casket.

The  poems “Young God of the Catskills” parts 1 and 2 show us Mike Tyson at two stages of his career - warning Trevor Berbick in 1986 “They think it's just the power/ But it’s the accuracy of the power/ Every punch is thrown with bad intention and the speed of the devil.” Subsequently we see him come undone against Buster Douglas, knocked down in the tenth round after felling Douglas in the eighth. Asked why he lost, Tyson replies “I just stopped caring/ He got up.Nobody else had.”. (Lately, we have seen instead a run of fighters such as Anthony Joshua, James De Gale and Audley Harrison who stopped caring as soon as it became apparent their opponents didn’t buy the hype.)

Each of the boxing poems is a finely balanced tribute to both boxers in the ring - in celebrating the victory of one, Ryan never ignores the courage of the other. For the most part, the politics of boxing is there in the identity of the fighters in the ring - Italian poor, black poor - never other than poor. In Jehovah and the River, though, the Ali-v- Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” is set against the backdrop of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the rise of Mobutu , “epitome of a closet sadist.” In the end, even Ali’s political suss and style couldn’t escape the bloodstain that US imperialism shed across the globe. “What happened here is going to shock the world” Ryan concludes, and it’s clear he means both the fight, and the butchery and embezzlement Mobutu carried out. Ronald Reagan, as Ryan notes, described Mobutu as “a voice of good sense and good will.” Like Pinochet. Like Ferdinand Marcos.

Ryan has called boxing “a place for the authentic”. In his hands, as “Crisis Actor” demonstrates so well, poetry can still be authentic as well.

Crisis Actor by Declan Ryan, Faber 2023, is available here.

Review of 'The Dogs' and 'Black Bullets in the Sweet Jar'
Monday, 07 August 2023 10:09

Review of 'The Dogs' and 'Black Bullets in the Sweet Jar'

Published in Poetry

Nick Moss reviews two new books from Smokestack: The Dogs, by Michael Stewart, and Black Bullets in the Sweet Jar by Alison Carr

Michael Stewart’s The Dogs is the product of a wretched encounter. A daily walk took him past a scrapyard where a guard dog, chained, was neglected and abused. Stewart is tormented by the encounter but can find no solution to the dog’s plight. One day the dog is gone, but weeks later a younger dog has taken his place. The book “is dedicated to the dog of Low Lane, and all the dogs around the world that never experience warmth, adequate shelter, or comfort.” The poems form a tripartite sequence. The first part sets out an origin myth of and for dogs; the second looks at the exploitation of dogs today, and their abuse through dysgenics and “pure” breeding; the third imagines an uprising with two movements, one non-violent (The UnderDogs) and the other a violent splinter group (De UberHund) demanding autonomy from humans. The book is illustrated by Louis Benoit, whose artwork captures the surreal, macabre plight of the dogs Stewart portrays.

In the first section, Parados, Stewart shows how “feral dogs running wild amongst people” come to be “blind and hobbled” (Dog Is Life) and there is the first intimation of the rebellion to come , with the call to:

Bite the hand that feeds,
growl,howl, hiss,
bark yourselves hoarse,
shit in their sacred places.

Dog comes to enter into a cursed bargain with man. In “Xoloitzcuintli” , dog is flattered to “serve as a guide to the dead as they make their way from this world to the next.” But the honour to serve man comes with a grim codicil “You must accompany the dead through your own death. And afterwards , we will eat your flesh.” Stewart relays how man’s violence becomes a weapon of control:

If Dog barked too much
or if he didn’t bark enough
the Man whipped Dog.
(The Man.)

Dog’s plight is captured in the description of Turnespete, the name given to a short-legged, long-bodied dog bred to run on a wheel to turn meat :-

Turnspit Pete, Turnspit Pete
Will they toss you crumbs to eat?
Will they give you snout and feet?
Or will you die before your treat?

As with all forms of exploitation and domination, the relationship is determined by the fact that the outcome is in one sense always open - there is always the possibility, amidst the crush of abuse, that you’ll get the “crumbs to eat.” The relationship between man and dog, master and servant, is thereby trained, not simply and brutally imposed.

dogs resized

The second section, Stasimon, gives us dog as dog lives now. The pubs that say No Dogs No Dogs No Dogs, the dog that “gets a kick for blinking (Bill’s Dog), the brachycephalic pugs and French bulldogs bred so that:

Sometimes during exercise
He collapsed
But isn’t he cute, they said.
Isn’t he just adorable?


Stewart’s writing takes on a scabrous rigour as the book progresses, with sections that resound with an anger captured in a mix of poetry and prose that suggests Louis-Ferdinand Celine dragging Alan Garner into a dark wood.( “Go to the pain” as Garner suggests, “go to where it hurts the most, and say whatever it tells you” .) At various points, “Jimmy Saville appeared in a pink shell suit and a string vest and said , Now then, now then, guys and galls. Uh-uh-uh-ughhh. Then went to Stoke Mandeville hospital to do some voluntary work...Fiona Bruce, wearing a straitjacket and a crazed grin, kept interrupting everyone with leading questions.” (Ouroboros.) The Gap Band and Cliff Richard’s butt plug both make appearances. Briggite Bardot’s animal-welfare-meets-Islamophobia campaigning is met by dog responding with Allahu Akbar (Pluto’s Square) and finally we come back to the guard dog from Low Lane:

This dog’s no good, they said
And beat him with an iron bar.
They smashed every bone in his legs,
Threw him in the back of a Nissan
Drove him to an abandoned farm
And chucked him down a well.

(Guard Dog.)

Stewart’s book is a fiery indictment of cruelty, to animals, and also of cruelty to refugees, to poor families queuing at food banks, to all those shackled and crushed by austerity and the swindles and sweat-stealing of capitalism. In the book’s final section, Exodos, the dogs rise up and “eat the hearts of men”:

“Is it good “? The wayfarer asked
“No,it’s like the hearts of all men.
They are tough to chew and taste of nothing.”

(The Hearts of Men.)

In the flux of revolution, the dogs unleash the turning-upside-down of man’s world:

Let the horizon’s hills
Heap as high as haystacks with the heads of dead hipsters ,
Make the sky black with drones

(The Dogs of War)

Dog hails “the death of peace” , and the dogs go:

...Fucking and eating
Everything that breathes
Shitting in your streets
Pissing on your trees

(The Dogs Are Laughing.)

The gates of the Kennel Club are stormed, and the eugenicist /dysgenecist logic of dog-breeding is linked back to Hitler reading Charles Davenport while incarcerated at Landsberg, with the eugenicist Davenport also inspiring Kennel Club founder Sewallis Shirley, and tail-chasing of all this coming then to the zoosadism and “sink the small boats” racism of today. The only way to break the shackles, to enter “the Land of No” is to celebrate “heterosis/ all hail hybrid vigour, they barked/ all hail Rassenschande.” By refusing to be a “parade of mutants”, dogs:

“...made a heap
Of muzzles and leads
As high as a hayrick
Then set fire to it.”

(When the Dogs Found Out What Adolf Learned in Landsberg.)

Stewart gives us no easy way out from this circular logic of abuse and exploitation. The dogs have their revolution, they free themselves of “the middleman /who sits betwixt dogs and god” but the UberHund is described as a monster dressed temporarily as an insurrectionist:

His chest was bare of fur and cloth
His flesh was ripped with pecs and recs
Arms linked with occult symbols
Wearing black leather trousers
And biker boots
Head sniped like a jackal’s

(Der Uberhund)

There are, after all the blood and piss and shit, no guarantees. In Dog’s Final Testament, Dog tells us “I/ kan /not/ fix/ the/ blak/ hole/ in/ yure/ soul/by /fetchin/ball. Yure/on/yure/own/now/pal.” Stewart wants us to have to face all of the implications of that fact.

The loss of childhood

Alison Carr’s Black Bullets in the Sweet Jar is, in part, a study of the loss of childhood. The writer was knocked down by a hit and run driver at the age of eight, and the poems engage with the sense she had of being suddenly expelled from childhood. But the poems are, in fact, more ambiguous than that, and the trauma of the hit and run isn't the only mechanism by which childhood comes to be made mutable. The book opens, though, with Arrival, which deals directly, and unsparingly, with the hit and run that makes being alive as if:

Pebbles bounce on the shell of my mind
Like gravel stirring my concrete thoughts.


The awareness of someone cutting into her shaved head - “Thick fingers fiddle with brain tissue/Blood mesh/His bear-like hands/sieve through my mind” - the sense of hands in antiseptic gloves physically sifting “concrete thoughts” - is jarring, as if the hit and run has knocked mind and body out of joint.

black bullets resized

Carr 's work captures exactly the elusive, slowly-darkening magic of childhood “the soft pages/Of fairy tale books”, (The Old House of Childhood) the “sherbet twists...the dark taste of liquorice /Purpling lips like a punch in the mouth.” Every memory recalled has a shadow of menace that never quite intrudes but remains always present, just out of view. In Daisy Chains and Nettle-Stings, she writes:

Grubby knees, orchard trees,
Throwing pebbles, bouncing balls
The fizz, the surprise
Of Dandelion and Burdock

and recalls a “future bright as crocuses.” Always left open, though, is whether the optimistic scenario of “Dandelions/counting time/Holding hopes. Yours. Mine” can come to pass, or whether the nostalgia for childhood is a nostalgia for possibility lost. In Playground:

Bright ribbons in the girls’ hair
Powder-shot brilliant sunshine
We all fall down
that “falling down” is the crashing to earth of a dream.

Like Adrian Henri, and with the dark tone which flickered always around the wit in Stevie Smith’s works, Alison Carr’s writing has an earthy, grass-stained surrealism, there in that “powder-shot brilliant sunshine”, and in the “Hope rolls away like a marble” that is the rueful essence of all of the poems here. (Promises.) The sweetie jar on the top shelf is always just out of reach (Bullet) but there is still, for a while, “Youth’s crispiness in my mouth /Adventure on my tongue.” (Tuckshop). Halcyon Liquorice gives us:

Sweet sunshine days
Staring at the sugar-cane windows

...and the rhythm and the reminiscence both take me back to Henri’s In the Midnight Hour, the hand “held for a moment among the dripping trees” and Carr tells us of the “Swan on the water/Rippled rainbow light / Calm the leaping summer spirit/Of childhood” (Slow Things) and all those possibilities are there again, ripe, but not yet over-ripe and gone to rot. When the rot comes, though, Carr is unsparing:

Honey sweet afternoons are gone.
The hives attacked.
The honeycomb bitter.

(Sweet Afternoons.)

Soon enough,”The Dandelion and Burdock has gone flat” (Birthday Parties) and we’re left with:

Childish bubbles
Sky blue sunshine
Draining down the plughole.


Time kills hope, and adolescence hacks away at childhood innocence. Finally, Carr tells us:

But secondary school has other girls
Groups who taunt, play by other rules
Who know how to scratch
Put a match
To my childhood.


The sequence is followed by a group of poems that work away at the myth of the fall (singing to the serpent/The teeth – marked core lies on the grass (Bounty)) and a feminist awakening from the naivete of youthful hope, the “rosy globe of promise.... not as sweet as it looks
Poisoned to the core
It will pull her down to cinders and dry ash.”

(Heavenly Bite)

She wears a dark veil
In a vale of tears
Wet pearls on her face.


The awareness of misogyny and the passing of youthful friendships is joined with an awareness of finitude - “Everyone born changes to a curled corpse” (Heavenly Bite) - the blighted knowledge that whatever we dream, we all end up the same, which marks the ultimate passing of childhood:

We may be born in a clearing
But we die in the forest
Dim light closing in


Carr then works through the myths of the crashing to earth of Icarus and the fall of Lucifer  - "Collapse of innocence...When you swat a moth / All you are left with is dust on the wall" (Lucifer) before turning to the process of evolution , the “Squashed ape under the sky’s turmoil/ Struggling from the boiling river” (Evolution) , a struggle resulting not in steady progression, no hopeful teleology, but what may be a biological dead-end “The lizard slithers /Out of the river / And stands in the dirt/ In an Armani shirt.” (Slime)

Carr follows these with a series of exquisite melancholy, autumnal haiku, a typical example of which is Apple:

Hanging fruitfulness
A hollow skull
Wasps gather.

All of these effectively capture that essence of autumn –the decay and the growth, the sense of potentialities amidst the rot. The poems turn then to examine the decline and decay of industry and of a hopeful working-class life:

In the wasteland of growing up
Time ticks like a bomb
The tap drips


Always the dust-pocked windows
The grind of grit, dust.
Metal riot, metal riot. Rust.


Part of the key to building a better future, is the preservation of historical memory,in the face of the death of childhood’s hopes and the crushing of the possibilities there in the class battles of an earlier time ; not just on banners, or in documentary form, but as a living language of possibility, away from the museum and the archive - “Confined/consigned to a shiny museum” (Gleam). Carr gets this and looks for ways of writing towards it:

But this town still remembers
The fire-breathing industry
Dragon-lunged locomotives


Spikes on the heart monitor
The hospital is slowly closing down
This town is nearly dead


But “nearly” is not-yet-dead. Carr is unillusioned enough to keep reminding us that:

The nightingale that sang
On hope’s high branches
Has lost its song


.....but in the act of writing these poems she is proving that it remains possible to keep on singing out. There are moments though towards the book’s end when she appears entirely despairing:

Set a match to the worthless bonfire
Of my life


.....but even when she cries that “I want to be something else” the cry still resonates with hope - “A soap bubble of childish magic...I long to be a butterfly” (Struggling). Seen again in the autumnal is the chance of light and growth:

I want the day back, the copper brushing leaves of light
The crunch and whisper of the grass
The green damp sunlight.

(I Want)

In the end, Carr recognises, “We live in deeds, not years/In feelings, not in time.” If we are to be judged for what we do and how we lift and carry those around us, then pessimism and stasis just collude with the “figures on the dial.” (Chilled.) These are quietly profound, beautifully-composed poems which combine a sharp realism with a bracing, hard-fought-for, optimism. In one of the book’s final poems, Rage, Carr sets out what might be called the aesthetic purpose of her poems and of Smokestack Books more generally: to challenge a prevailing mood in contemporary literature, a contemptuous turning away from working-class voices, whether they talk of beauty, or dirt, or revolution:

They slam the book shut
So they don’t have to see
Anything that doesn’t agree
With their idea of perfection.

Both books are available here.

Reflections for Now: review of Carrie Mae Weems exhibition at the Barbican
Wednesday, 19 July 2023 14:20

Reflections for Now: review of Carrie Mae Weems exhibition at the Barbican

Published in Visual Arts

Nick Moss reviews the Weems exhibition, on at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, till 3 SeptemberImage above: Carrie Mae Weems, If I Ruled the World, 2004, © Jemima Yong

My responsibility as an artist is to work, to sing for my supper, to make art, beautiful and powerful, that adds and reveals; to beautify the mess of a messy world, to heal the sick and feed the helpless; to shout bravely from the roof-tops and storm barricaded doors and voice the specifics of our historic moment – Carrie Mae Weems

This exhibition represents the first major solo exhibition of Carrie Mae Weems in a UK institution. The fact is surprising, as Weems is an established and successful artist in the US. The Barbican ‘s curators have worked with Weems to bring together an impressive, challenging exhibition which documents the variety of Weems’ artistic practice, conducted across photographic series, films, and installations spanning over three decades.

Weems’ is a proudly activist art and can be refreshingly blunt and direct. So much art which claims to be political is shamefacedly allusive and mealy-mouthed. There is none of that here. Neither is this an art which avoids beauty or melancholy, but all such representations are rooted throughout in a desire to use art as a confrontation with America’s history of brutal racism and to trigger meaningful change.

1. Carrie Mae Weems Reflections for Now Installation view Barbican Art Gallery 2023 Jemima Yong

Carrie Mae Weems, Reflections for Now, Installation view, Barbican Art Gallery, 2023 © Jemima Yong

The works that open the exhibition are from the series Painting the Town; photographs of surfaces where graffiti in support of Black Lives Matter or in commemoration of George Floyd have been painted over, by racists, using black paint. Some reviews and commentary have made much of how these photographs conjure a form of abstract expressionism, but I don’t think that’s all that Weems intends. This is about censorship, pure and simple. Any image of abstraction is entirely accidental – a by-product of the obliteration of the black voice from public space.

If anything, the reference would be back to Malevich’s 1924 Black Circle, albeit with an entirely opposite intent. Whereas Malevich intended the affirmative, the iconic – the obliteration here of anti-racist text is entirely negative and censorious. If the photographs are shot so as to highlight this chance abstraction, then there may be an implicit critique, at work on 2 levels – abstract art as a displacement of the politically committed art of the preceding era, and the removal of black artists like Norman Lewis and Jack Whitten from the history of abstract art. The Painting the Town works are a good example of Weems’ practice – you think at first that the works give up their meaning easily, but they hold you and force you to think harder about your encounter with them.

11. A Hot Spot in a Corrupt World from And 22 Million Very Tired and Angry People 1991

Carrie Mae Weems, A Hot Spot in a Corrupt World from And 22 Million Very Tired and Angry People, 1991, Barbican Art Gallery, 2023 © Jemima Yong

Weems’ earliest works, such as A Hot Spot in a Corrupt World, use the disjunction between text and image to provocative effect. In the subsequent series, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, 1995-96, Weems makes use of a series of pictures of enslaved African Americans taken by photographer Joseph T. Zealy in 1850. Commissioned by the Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz, these were intended solely to support racist theories about the inferiority of Black people. The sitters are displayed simply as anthropological specimens. The photographs are bookended by images of a royal Mangbetu woman witnessing the crudely racist display. Weems infiltrates and disrupts the images, simply by cropping, tinting them and reframing them and overlaying fragments of texts that expose and subvert the original intent.

The work for which Carrie Mae Weems is probably best known, the Kitchen Table series, stages a series of domestic portraits which show the development of a feminist consciousness from within the confines of a family relationship, with the characters wrestling with various forms of interpersonal dependency, oppression and, at the same time, friendship and haven. The photographs are accompanied by texts which sometimes mirror what we see, at other times seem to stand in contradiction to it, so that the participants are shown to develop their particular awareness as a working-through of each situation as it unfolds.

Weems uses the juxtaposition of text and image in her work in fascinating ways – sometimes to highlight, sometimes to trick, always thereby to expose how images are constructed and how ideologies manifest in visual form. In her 2008 Constructing History series she has her students restage and photograph historical events-Hiroshima, the JFK assassination, the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King – working out how little is now required to conjure the event given the extent to which each event has been overlaid by the accrual of various earlier stagings, interpretations, edits etc. When we understand an event as a specific image-form, how much do we really understand of it?

By overlaying the Evers/Malcolm/MLK assassinations, for instance, Weems asks what do we really know of the specificity of the assassinations, how much are they obscured by the media interventions which strip them of their historicity, how much of this is deliberate, and how much simply a product of the technology of mediation. By unpicking the theatre, the performance of photographic representations, we are made to look at the events afresh.

The most ambitious work here, and the most recent, is The Shape of Things, Weems’ 2021 film projected as a cyclorama on a wide, curved screen. The film is in seven parts and splices old footage of circus performers and slapstick with live films of Trump rallies and the 6 January mob crashing the Washington Capitol. We are asked to imagine how it is to live when you are always stopped, always charged, always convicted, always killed. Scenes of police violence are cut with the voiceover of a white woman ranting hysterically about being attacked by a black man in Central Park (in fact a black male birdwatcher asking her politely to put her dog on a leash.) 

We are told to imagine the worst, and that it never stops recurring. The Shape of Things works because of its scale, its overwhelming, disorientating, impact, like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, faced with that single catastrophe that brings about a storm to propel him towards the future while “piling wreckage upon wreckage and (hurling it) at his feet.”

The Shape of Things leaves us dazed and despairing but feeling that we have somehow to act if only so that we can find our way through the wreckage and disorientation to somewhere else. (There is an adjacent film which features Weems giving a lecture about an encounter with Trump, which doesn’t work at all, because it is portentous and indulges in a “when they go low, we go high” moralizing that fits ill with the subversive rage she displays more generally.) 

17. Carrie Mae Weems Lincoln Lonnie and Me A Story in 5 Parts 2012

Carrie Mae Weems, Lincoln, Lonnie and Me, A Story in 5 Parts, 2012, Barbican Art Gallery, 2023 © Jemima Yong

Lincoln, Lonnie and Me – A Story in 5 Parts, is one of the most extraordinary works I’ve seen in recent times. The work consists of an eighteen-and-a-half-minute video projection, where life-size figures float on a central stage framed by scarlet curtains. The figures are enveloped by mist or float ethereal in snow, interrupted by silence and succeeding each other. A tap dancer appears while Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground echoes out like an angry ghost.

Weems appears, dressed as a trickster, and snarling “I am gonna destroy ya, because I want you to feel the suffering that I know. It’s not gonna be pretty, Oh! Revenge is a muthafucka.” She recites Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. Neil Diamond sings Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon. The artist/activist Lonnie Graham talks of the difficulty of achieving meaningful social change. All of this is displayed using a technique developed in 1862 by John Henry Pepper, the director of London’s Royal Polytechnic Institution and a critic of spiritualist discourses, who wanted to expose the theatrical tricks exploited by fake mediums and con artists.

Pepper’s namesake technique enables objects and actors to appear onstage as projected spectral images, by means of a simple optical manipulation: a pane of glass is placed at a forty-five-degree angle between the stage and a hidden adjoining chamber, or “blue room,” located beneath it. When appropriately illuminated, objects and actors in the chamber appear on the glass and before the audience as dematerialized versions of themselves. Thus, on one level we might see the Pepper technique as a form of ideology critique, in that it is intended straightforwardly as a tool to expose illusion.

But, as always, Weems asks us to think again, look harder, because the technique also serves to allow the ghosts of a history not yet realized , the “unfinished work” of the Gettysburg address, to haunt the stage. Lincoln, Lonnie and Me is what a mash-up of Blind Willie Johnson, Kenneth Anger, William Kentridge and the Black Panther Party might look like and it is magnificent.

Carrie Mae Weems’ retrospective shows us what art which engages with the possibility of political change can accomplish, if the artist is resolute and determined to combine a rage proper to the times with an unwillingness to compromise aesthetic vision. In her Roaming photographs, Weems, graceful, ethereal, haunts the drawing rooms and balconies of the architecture of fascist Italy. Weems often works through a concept of intrusion into the frame which allows her to develop a critique of racial oppression and the images which sustains it, by an interruption immanent to the image itself, a disruption of its internal logic. In the ruins of ancient Rome and the opulent posturing of fascist Italy, her presence as counter-position works as a kind of victory.

Clive Branson and Montagu Slater: Poetry reviews
Wednesday, 14 June 2023 16:03

Clive Branson and Montagu Slater: Poetry reviews

Published in Poetry

Nick Moss reviews two new books from Smokestack BooksThe Selected Poems of Clive Branson, edited by Richard Knott, and The Collected Poems of Montagu Slater, edited by Ben Harker

It makes sense to review these volumes together as there are overlapping themes. Both are poets who were staunch communists. Both wrote in the face of the rise of fascism, the necessity of resistance and the outbreak of war.

While stylistically there are some overlaps, the two are very different poets. The publication of these books by Smokestack gives us the opportunity to assess and compare their works, but also, in light of these, to consider three linked questions – what might constitute a properly communist poetry; whether such a poetry might be conceivable today; and what might be salvageable from the failures of the communist project in the past to retrieve as  a point of distinction from the betrayals of social democracy and the collapse of “official communism.”

How might any of this be made to make sense as anything other than an exercise in nostalgia? In a time when the possibility of the overthrow of capitalism seems so proscribed by both capitalism’s capacity for self-renewal and by the defeat of any lived alternatives, what can we take from a poetry of Spain in the Civil War, of the Blitz, of the poverty of the 1930s, that might help us chart a way out of the twin impasses of political pessimism and an aesthetic conservatism that manifests either as a dead-end contextless recycling of  stale pseudo-Prynnian  tropes or inoffensive pastoral verse?

To turn to Branson first, we should admit that both a strength and weakness of his writing is its seeming spontaneity, the almost improvisational quality to it, as if it represents an unedited attempt to make sense of life while he is in the midst of events.

Branson was born in India , joined the Communist Party in 1932, took a leading role in driving the British Union of Fascists out of Battersea, and fought with the International Brigade in Spain. He was conscripted in 1941 and killed in action in Burma in 1944. His life then, brief as it was, encompassed a commitment to struggle against fascism both via street fighting and via military means and he did not shirk from any of this.

One of the most striking aspects of his poetry therefore is the fact that his rage against the injustices he encounters is always at the forefront of his work. This is from “Forward” (p.33):

Because it’s time for a revolution

To end the beating up of man by man,

To do away with the police nark, stool pigeon, assassin

Judge, gaol.

And, again, from the poem “London” (p.53):

This shadow’s magnitude is entirely yours.

But not the depth of night, the sense of darkness.

The will to feel belongs to us and ours:

No, not to armed police, businessmen and bankers.

And, in “London”, this clear sense of possibility, the “will to feel”, is articulated against both a clear description of the oppressive machinery of the capitalist state, and the terror it maintains:

In peoples’ eyes look fear,no sleep, and despair.

Children must feed on hunger, read the pavement

While mother labours to quicken dad’s massacre

In this mad-house of profit, interest and rent.

We can see these as blunt, effective representations of a distinctly communist aesthetic. Roberto Schwartz has described Bertolt Brecht’s works as seeking to “demonstrate that actions of everyday life also have a representational aspect: the roles played there could be different, too, for social processes were mutable.” (New Left Review second series 57).

There is no need to make grandiose comparisons with Brecht to see that Branson is attempting something similar here, a refusal of illusion and a belief in revolutionary possibility. What is also distinct, and I think is clear in both Branson’s work, and, as we shall see, in Slater’s, is an acceptance of the need for (not glorification of) revolutionary violence.  As Branson sets out, in “The General Didn’t Know” (p.93):

We are the people those bombs hit again-

and again-there’s always printers ink

for tomorrow’s press-and again-

there’s always plenty of drink

for the General Staff - again

until we realise WE are the men, the women,

the children killed in the press

by the generals for the rich

who have no feelings, cannot feel our pain.

The solution Branson looks towards is to fight a war against war, to turn the war against fascism ultimately into a revolutionary war. (“Peace the bloodier crime”, as he puts it in “December 1936, Spain.”) There is a distinctly Orwellian mood to his writing in this regard, in his reverence for England, and for a patriotic socialism.

Orwell said, in The Lion and the Unicorn, that “It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free…The England that is only just beneath the surface, in the factories and the newspaper offices, in the aeroplanes and the submarines, has got to take charge of its own destiny.” 

Branson calls upon the legacy of Chartism, peasant revolts “fighting that those who worked should own the land/not Baron, Priest or King. They failed/Though never for want of knowing the power they held” (May First p.95) so that:

We take this oath

no matter the consequence to ourselves-life or death-

we pledge our whole strength to raise once again

the banner of liberty, the banner of Englishmen.

He concludes “Let every Englishman fight for this cause/Communism is English! Freedom is ours!”.

Some will take issue with this form of revolutionary patriotism, but whatever else we might want to argue, it is  distinctly republican and thereby distinct also from the retreat to shallow patriotism of, for instance, Keir Starmer (from human rights lawyer to endorser of detention of refugees) or the cautious reformism of the various iterations of Britain’s Road to Socialism.

With its vital call to “head the assault/against the world’s tyrants who rule through our fault” and to “Fight with no rest till Fascism ends in rout” (“Soldier Just Take a Look” p.74) Branson’s writing also suggests that something was lost in the post-war years that was not simply about the debates about socialism in one country or permanent revolution, but an entire way of conceiving social transformation – its extent and how it might be brought about. That the tradition of Cable Street and Spain and the tradition of Labour Party entryism and campus paper sales are worlds apart, and that there is not a red thread from then to now but a discontinuity.

Orwell set it out as “In all societies the common people must live to some extent against the existing order”. It is this “living against” and what it requires that we have forgotten but which runs throughout Branson’s work.

But there is something strange in there too. It is probably best described as a kind of pagan materialism, and it emerges from Branson’s own wrestling with the horrors of  a world wracked by poverty, fascism and war – the same existentialist dilemma that resulted in the Sartrean turn in French post- war thought, faced with both the reality of finitude that war so brutally and casually  made clear, and the willingness of so many to compromise with fascism.

It is a love of nature which is vigorous, almost Lawrentian. It is the exact opposite of the Francoist injunction “Long Live Death.” It is there in Branson’s fascination in “Aeroplane” (p.25) with the “Power to touch the stars.” It is there in his acceptance of the possibility of death in Zero Hour (p.30) , in a reversal of Nietzsche that insists “No! Not like the sun do the dead repeat/The farce of their eternal repetition”. In “Forward” Branson condemns:

The writer who says he has no time to care

for the daffodil or cowslip

who thereby:

shames/The very revolution he proclaims/He is no better than the millionaire/Who clears the ground of trees/shrubs/weeds.”(p.33)

In Today My Eyes (p.70) , Branson states that “The dead deserve no eyes who from their birth/ Neglect to learn the beauty of the earth.” What stands out most in all of this is the unflinching, death-haunted, sensibility, and a coldness in his imagery that shows how the spectre of the triumph of fascism had so disrupted his natural optimism.

Like a new cut on a young girl’s shoulder

the sun left a crimson scar.

Through barbed wire

We can feel the day’s passing

and evening

warns us of night, the complete end.

(Sunset, p.84)

Branson writes as lover and soldier – at a time when he, like many others had made a decision to risk their lives against a force committed to maintaining inequality through genocide and permanent war. His proximity to the grave made him all to aware of how much he loved life and what he was therefore willing to lose:

Gone are the times of romance ! Over wide

Acres of night death ploughs the ruts of doom

Changing the destiny of tomb and womb.

(Soldier Just Take A Look, p. 74)


The cultural war against capitalist ideology

Montagu Slater is the better-known writer, insofar as he is remembered as the librettist of Benjamin Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes (the libretto and a deleted “Mad Song” are contained herein). Slater worked with Britten, John Grierson and WH Auden at the GPO film unit, and helped develop the realist documentary tradition, with its commitment to show things “as they are.”

Slater saw his involvement in the arts as part of a cultural war against capitalist ideology and the development of a revolutionary culture to help bring about a new and emancipated society. He was one of the founders of the Left Review, and worked across a range of art forms – poetry, theatre, film, pageantry and puppetry.

Ben Harker’s introduction provides an excellent overview of this. Slater’s view of culture encompassed folk poetry, Piers Ploughman, William Blake, music hall, popular theatre, and penny dreadfuls. His commitment to bringing about a genuinely popular revolutionary culture mirrors Branson’s faith in the revolutionary elements of English history. All of this we should note, preceded and doubtless impacted on Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawn, E.P. Thompson and the history-from-below that they developed within the CP tradition.

We find again, in Slater, that pagan materialism which rendered much of Branson’s poetry a strange delight. In An Elegy (p.33) Slater writes:

Our little lives, our chapels and our hymns,

mining and fishing-apostolic round -

a tidal river governed with its whims

neap tides renew but spring tides leap the bounds.

Sometimes this can take a surprising turn. “In the Beginning: A Broken Narrative” is shattered, impressionistic, one moment reflecting on the 1926 General Strike and the tactics used to atomise a workforce, the next leaping to something that could be straight out of Apollinaire:

Skies, violet in the early stage

Purple by increment

Inaugurate the stratosphere

Black as bedazzlement

Sun-bathing our defiancies

Toughening skin to breed

Dimitrov physiognomies

Like greyhounds are for speed.

The shift in tone delivers up that shift to a mood that is exactly defiant, stratospheric, despite the strategizing of the factory boss, so that the poem, and, as Slater perceives it, the cultural intervention per se, becomes “a word like a rivet/Red hot, to be dropped in.”

What is also of interest in relation to Slater’s work, most obviously in Peter Grimes, is a commitment to working through an understanding of psychoanalytic theories. Thus, his materialism expands to incorporate this and is enriched by it.

He contends in Character Equals Situation (p.50) that “The plain man’s plain prosaic lie…is shame.”  In Your Touch Hast Still (p.71) there is a brief illumination of how this might be worked through to a possibly liberatory effect: “Mythology breaks down, a gap/Lets in the undecided hope.” The two materialisms, the psychoanalytic and the nature-grounded, combine to their most beautiful effect in Now Praise (p.53):

Fatigue may cloud

The spinal fluid

But thought will speed

The dancing blood

Which traces veins

so delicate

That you would say

The body thought.

Bare to the sun

Worship and study

This gold, this gold

Human body.

A commitment to communist militancy

What then, can we take from these collections? What can we learn from the works of 2 communist poets, the later of who died in 1956 , before Khrushchev’s speech, before Cuba, before the collapse of Stalinism?

Let us say that most obviously we can take inspiration from their determined commitment to the use of poetry not simply to reflect or to inspire, but to expose, to put into practice that “anti-illusionism” which Brecht most obviously sought to exemplify. We hear much now about “culture wars”, but should it not be the case that culture ought to be fought as a war – between the old order of rent, exploitation, racism, misogyny and homophobia, and the new order we want to bring about? Should we not commit to the relentless critique of what is? What’s the alternative – a commitment to a form of art that offers catharsis through tragic form, but thereby does nothing to move anything an inch further forward? A beautiful resignation? Neither Branson or Slater are “great” poets, but their work inspires, excites, rages and denounces and refuses to be passive.

In his essay “Marxism and Poetry”, Ernst Bloch writes of poetry as “imagination without lie.” He states that a “revolutionary poetry” does not demand the sacrifice of imagination, but the acceptance of a poetry where “the bleakness, solitude and disorientation of late capitalism are pressing concerns.”

He notes though, that poetry is not history. That historiographers express what happened, and poets what might well happen. This I think is the second point to take from reading Branson and Slater, and relates to that pagan/ Freudian materialism, and how we might conceive a communist poetry today. Bloch says that “meaningful poetry makes the world become aware of an accelerated flow of action.”

In other words, it is not passive, or pastoral. It conceives of a world which is dynamic and plastic. Bloch says that “Truth is ultimately the demonstration of tendency and latency of what has not yet developed and needs its agent.” Poetry, if both unillusioned and optimistic, might be one of those possible agents. Reading Slater and Branson at their best shows us a way to attempt that task.

As for the lessons we might more directly learn – what really separated the communism of Branson and Slater from the lefts of today? A commitment to ideological struggle, to not flinching from, and taking the initiative in, culture wars; a commitment to a revolutionary humanism and class struggle, and to militant anti-fascism as a recognition that fascism was committed to militant inequality and had to be fought relentlessly as such; and a refusal of (to quote Orwell again) “flabby pacifism.” Even though Branson and Slater carry with them some of the baggage of the degeneration of the CPGB, their writings still give an indication of what the commitment to communist militancy might truly mean.

Isaac Julien: What Freedom is to me
Thursday, 04 May 2023 08:30

Isaac Julien: What Freedom is to me

Published in Visual Arts

Nick Moss reviews this exhibition, at Tate Britain till 20 August. Image above: Isaac Julien, What Freedom is to me - Homage, 2022, © Isaac Julien, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro

This exhibition represents the most comprehensive show of Isaac Julien’s work in the UK to date. Its focus is a large-scale set of multi-screen installations, designed in conjunction with the architect David Adjaye.

The first thing to be said, unfortunately, is that this form fails on a simple, basic level. Adjaye has turned the exhibition space into a multiplex, with screens in a series of rooms set off from the centre of the space. This doesn’t work because the sound from one room bleeds into the next. Given that Julien’s work is based around the juxtaposition of images and the narration of text, the fact that you struggle to hear the words spoken is a fault that could easily have been avoided, had the participation of the viewer been placed above the determination to play with the space. In some of the rooms, the sound is muffled and there are basic issues around audibility. 

Isaac Julien is unquestionably an important artist. He is the obvious successor to Derek Jarman as innovating a queer cinema which tries to fuse the political with the poetic. As he states:

Radically and aesthetically, I want to aim for an experience that can offer a novel way to see moving images, in its choice of subject, in how it’s displayed, in how it’s been shot.

The exhibition of these works, though, with later works juxtaposed with his earliest films, suggests that the radical has become detached from the aesthetic, such that the later works have fallen into a vapid theatricality which renders banal any attempt at the “political lyricism” he references as a key influence from Jarman.

The earliest work here, a film made while still at St Martins School of Art, is Who Killed Colin Roach? (Colin Roach was a 21-year-old British man who died on 12 January 1983 from a gunshot wound inside Stoke Newington police station). It has a rough energy and anger which is the key to the best of Julien’s work. It is, though, shown on a small screen outside the main exhibition, as is This is Not an AIDS Advertisement.  They are diminished as a result, when they should be seen as keystones in the development of his work. What they make clear is that Julien is at his best when directly engaged with a political movement, using his sense of “rupture and sublimity” to articulate the demands of a struggle within which he is a participant. The cinema he set out to develop with the Sankofa Film and Video Collective, one which would, as Stuart Hall (an abiding influence) put it, create a language which would “allow people to “speak about where they are and what other possible futures are available to them” is best realised here, and in his most successful, genuinely flawless work, Looking for Langston.


Installation view, Looking for Langston, Tate Britain, 2023. Photo: Jack Hems, © Isaac Julien, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro

It is Looking for Langston which is the over-arching joy here, the realisation of a black, queer cinematic expression able to meet the challenge Julien  set himself; to answer the question “what did Black artists actually want to say? What would their art look like if its internal dialogues were made accessible to a wider audience?”

Julien has always used the fantastic as a  core element of his work, and in Looking for Langston the fantastic works to articulate black gay desire in wonderful, surprising ways. A cruising leatherman, a speakeasy where black and white gay men dance together to a soundtrack which switches from 20s jazz to Todd Terry’s Can You Party?, the poetry of Essex Hemphill and Toni Morrison’s eulogy to Langston Hughes fuse to make explicit the inseparability of Hughes’s communism, his anti-imperialism and his sexuality. Like Julien’s big screen Young Soul Rebels (absent from any substantial reference here) Looking for Langston succeeds because it is brash and fierce and defiant, a brashness that appears to have been drained from Julien’s later works.

The best of what follows, Western Union: Small Boats, a work made with choreographer Russell Maliphant, which focuses on small boat crossings in the Mediterranean, and Lina Bo Bardi-A Marvellous Entanglement, a celebration of the work of the Brazilian modernist architect, made with the dance company Bale Folclorico de Bahia, continue Julien’s incorporation of dance as a core element of his work, using bodies in movement as a way of disrupting any conventional narrative, while still showing how borders and barriers impact on people seeking to build new lives or work out other ways of living-together.


Installation view, Lessons of the Hour, Tate Britain, 2023 Photo: Jack Hems, © Isaac Julien, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro

There is, though, a sense of Julien adrift from the political grounding which gave impetus to the earlier works. Lessons of the Hour, “a poetic journey into the life and times of Frederick Douglass”, is framed around Douglass’s Lecture on Pictures, a discourse on photography and identity which fits well with Julien’s own themes. The problem is that Julien does little with the material, beyond turn it into a costume drama, with mise-en-scene prioritised over all else. The film features an actor cast as Douglass in encounters with various characters intended as “representatives of the ideal of equality” – including Anna Murray and Helen Pitts, who were respectively Douglass' first and second wives.

Anna Murray Douglass was responsible for helping Douglass' achieve freedom, and  supported him throughout his life and managed their home during his long absences. Anna and Ellen Richardson were two English Quakeresses who enabled Douglass to return to America as a free man. Susan B. Anthony was one of the most important American suffragists as well as Douglass' long-time friend. The intention is to link Douglass as abolitionist with Douglass as supporter of women’s suffrage. All well and good, but the film -making here is conservative and dull, when it ought to be full of fury.

The struggle against the violence of capitalism

Douglass was purportedly the most-photographed man of his time. That being the case, why resort to a mannered restaging of his life? There is a further intention to link Douglass’s Lecture on Pictures with Walter Benjamin’s arguments on the reproducibility of the image, but this ultimately goes nowhere. What’s missing is precisely what Douglass and Benjamin had in common, a recognition of violence as inherent both to capitalism and to the battle for freedom from capitalism’s rule.

The Douglass who said that the struggle for emancipation “may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle” is not captured here and it is that spirit, which was so exhilaratingly present in Julien’s earlier films, and which is missing entirely in the later works. Julien talks of the “gradual increase in scale” of his works “from one screen to two, to three, to five and so on” as always being in service to “film as sculpture, film and architecture.” And the later films are indeed sculptural, but almost to the point of numbing stasis.


Mazu, Silence (Ten Thousand Waves) 2010, Endura Ultra photograph, © Isaac Julien, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro

Ten Thousand Waves, ostensibly a response to the death of the 23 cockle pickers who drowned at Morecambe Bay in 2004, fails entirely, regardless of good intentions. It is little more than an exercise in Orientalist cliches filmed in the style of Zhang Yimou. The only time we feel any real sense of the dread and despair of what occurred is when the film cuts to helicopter footage of the rescue of one of the survivors. The insertion of the real at this point only renders the rest of the film redundant, with the goddess Wazu floating around in a white or hanging around on atmospheric cobbled streets like a character in an outtake from Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love.

The most recent work, Once Again, centres on a conversation between Alain Locke (cultural theorist of the Harlem Renaissance) and Albert C. Barnes (an early US collector of African art.) It incorporates footage from Looking for Langston and also from Ghislain Cloquet, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’s Statues Also Die and from Nii Kwate Owoo’s You Hide Me. Unfortunately, Julien’s film comes off second best to these, offering up a stagey, contrived dialogue between Locke and Barnes that just rings false against Owoo’s icepick of anger and the method used in Statues Also Die of brutal cuts between African arts and craft forms and footage of battles between cops and demonstrators.

The vibrancy of Julien as a film-maker at the start has become by the time of Once Again a series of predictable, overly theatrical and hackneyed  tropes. What’s lacking from the later films, and what is so essential in the earlier works, is exactly what Walter Benjamin called the “chaos of memories”. Julien has stated elsewhere that:

I am interested in the spaces and poetics of representation and the lives which need to be pictured so that the previously invisible subjects can reclaim those spaces.

The problem is that what he has arrived at as a poetics of representation is now so rigidly artificial that there is no room for the invisible subjects to inhabit his films in the way they did in Looking for Langston. He needs to allow the chaos back in.

Hot Off the Griddle: Alice Neel exhibition at The Barbican, London
Thursday, 13 April 2023 09:37

Hot Off the Griddle: Alice Neel exhibition at The Barbican, London

Published in Visual Arts

Nick Moss reviews Hot Off the Griddle, an exhibition of Alice Neel's art at the Barbican Art Gallery, till 21st May 2023. Image above: Support the Union, 1937. All images in this article are © The Estate of Alice Neel and courtesy of The Estate of Alice Neel.

The Barbican’s retrospective of Alice Neel’s 60-year career (the largest exhibition devoted to Neel to date in the UK) gives us Alice Neel at every stage of her development. Most importantly, while showing us Neel as she came to be seen – “the court painter of the underground”— the paintings gathered here restore her edginess, show her as an unflinching observer of her subjects, and set out  her background in the Federal Arts Project of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration.

Neel was raised in the conservative backwater of Colwyn, Pennsylvania. When she first expressed her desire to be an artist, her mother responded with “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, Alice. You’re only a girl.” Undaunted, in 1921 she enrolled in the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. In 1924 she met the Cuban artist Carlos Enriquez Gomez, and in 1925 they married and relocated to Havana. Neel was strongly influenced by Robert Henri, founder of the Ashcan school of social realism. Henri was committed to a relentless brutalism, and urged those who came after him to “paint what is real to you.”

In American Visions, the critic Robert Hughes says of Henri that he  “wanted art to be akin to journalism. He wanted paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horseshit and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter, as real a human product as sweat, carrying the unsuppressed smell of human life." In this, Neel may be Henri’s truest disciple, but, as this show demonstrates, she has a kinder eye, a concern to show not just oppression and debasement but dignity and beauty also.

In the late 20s, Neel and Enriquez returned to the US where they suffered the loss of their first daughter. The couple separated and during this period Neel was repeatedly taken into psychiatric care. She moved to Greenwich Village and continued to paint. Her commitment to a vigorous, unabashed style is manifest here in her painting of herself with her lover John Rothschild, one pissing into the toilet, the other into the sink, and her madcap portrait of Joe Gould as a manic satyr with a dangling string of penises .

NM Joe Gould 1933 resized

Joe Gould, 1933

The Gould portrait still caused outrage when she tried to exhibit it in a solo show in 1962. Although its absurdity marks it out from much of her work, it is nevertheless typical of her style, insofar as it is, in its painting , still deliberately unshowy and perhaps even flat. She follows Henri’s dictum to “paint what is real to you” -and paints nothing more or less than that, even when seeking to catch the essence of the street preacher-surrealist Gould.

Her Public Works Art Project paintings are the first yields of her social realist style. She paints and participates in political activism, as a committed anti-fascist. Her paintings from this period – “Nazis Murder Jews “ and Uneda Biscuit Strike” – actually recall  L.S. Lowry. The point of comparison being that both were artists who painted the industrial scene and (for Neel) the demonstration “from the ground up” (as T.J. Clarke and Anne Wagner put it in Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life ).

Neel explicitly rejected any exploration of abstraction as an option for her. The FBI had her down as “a romantic, Bohemian-type communist.” She saw herself as “an anarchic humanist” and it was this that motivated her commitment to the figurative: “Human beings have been steadily marked down in value, despised, rejected and degraded.” It was important therefore to represent human beings in painting and create especially a space for those who otherwise went unseen.

From this followed her portraits of Communist Party-linked intellectuals such as Harold Cruse and Mike Gold, a young Frank O’Hara, and the funeral of Mother Bloor, founding member of the Communist Labour Party. Neel does not glorify those she paints. She doesn’t resort to the hackneyed symbolic tropes of second rate portraiture. The Party paintings are simple, unadorned, almost naïve, as if Neel hopes that by showing Party intellectuals as ordinary, simple and straightforward, she will somehow deflect the McCarthyite smears and slanders of the day.

Propaganda of the deed

Painting for Neel is a propaganda of the deed, with the deed being simply the hopeful representation of an unvarnished truth. This can lead to a duality she perhaps does not always intend, but which emerges from that plainly rendered honesty and decency which is essential to her work. There is a portrait in the exhibition of Gus Hall, one-time General Secretary of the Communist Party of the United States. Hall paid a heavy price for being a Communist militant in the McCarthy years, serving 10 years in jail, and was a committed member of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in his youth. He was also, though, a Moscow-man through and through, and it’s fair to say, a devoted Party functionary and not exactly a reflective man. Neel presumably paints him because he is a subject whose commitment to class struggle she thinks worthy of representation. But he appears here, chin jutting out, ushanka on his head, every inch the unapologetic bureaucrat. She can only paint what is real to her, even if, as here, she may think she is painting something else.

NM 13. Andy Warhol 1970 resized

Andy Warhol, 1970

There is too much genuinely powerful work here to cover in a review. Perhaps the best of the paintings is Neel’s portrait of Andy Warhol. She paints him in 1970, two years after Valerie Solanas’s attempt to kill him. He is slumped, topless, revealing his wounds and the surgical corset he has to wear. In POPism, Warhol says “The fear of getting shot again made me think that I’d never again enjoy talking to somebody whose eyes looked weird. But when I thought about that, I got confused, because it included almost everybody I really enjoyed !” Neel captures some of that here, the vulnerability and the nervous defiance.

NM 22. Self Portrait 1980 resized

Self-portrait, 1980

At 80, she painted herself nude. You can see superficial similarities to Lucian Freud in the work, a way of painting flesh that is somehow not static or artificial in its rendering, but alive, falling, rolling. But if there is something of the autopsy about Freud, Neel is gentler, taking real pleasure in her body in its ninth decade. She said that painting was a space in which she “could be completely and utterly myself. It was extremely important to me…I just told it as it was.” She did more than that though: by painting Harold Cruse and the women of Spanish Harlem in the same celebratory, non-judgemental way she painted society figures like Archbishop  Jean Jadot, apostolic delegate to the United States, she painted life as it could perhaps be, where everyone could be completely and utterly themselves.

Extinction Beckons - Review of Mike Nelson exhibition, Hayward Gallery
Wednesday, 12 April 2023 10:09

Extinction Beckons - Review of Mike Nelson exhibition, Hayward Gallery

Published in Visual Arts

Nick Ross reviews this exhibition, on till 7 May at the Hayward Gallery, London. Image above: The Deliverance and The Patience, interior, 2001. Photo by Liam Harrison. Courtesy the artist and the Hayward Gallery

There is a dichotomy that leaps immediately to mind in relation to Mike Nelson’s work. He has established himself as a major force in art’s premier league. He represented Great Britain at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011 and has shown around the world. He has featured in numerous international exhibitions, including the 13th Biennale of Sydney, the 8th Istanbul Biennial and the 13th Lyon Biennale. The art, though, speaks of something else entirely. It refuses any sense of the hollow grandeur that so much Biennale-focused art represents.

Nelson’s art is scavenged from flea markets, boot fairs, warehouse closures, and the materials are then transformed into installations which represent self-contained worlds. The works stink - of oil, of burned rubber, decommissioned industrial machinery. The title of the show hints at environmental disaster, but extinction is a theme throughout: closed-down workplaces, deserted offices, abandoned studios. Nelson creates installations for us to wander through, but the original inhabitants have all fled in the face of pending disaster, and we are the witnesses to the post-disaster wreckage.

The exhibition begins with a disorientating maze of rooms created within an old container-we loop round, stumbling through a Nairobi travel agency, a sweatshop full of rags, a deserted ship’s bar, a shrine, another one to  Elvis. Next we come upon a homeless person’s sleeping bag. The bag is filled with rubble. The political implication - that some of us are just social  debris - is obvious.

Mike Nelson I IMPOSTOR the darkroom 2011. Various materials. Photo Matt Greenwood. Courtesy the artist and the Hayward Gallery resized

I, IMPOSTOR (the darkroom), 2011. Various materials. Photo Matt Greenwood. Courtesy the artist and the Hayward Gallery

There is a desert bunker that leads to a studio/darkroom, but the space is too cramped to allow you to properly examine the prints drying in the room. What appears to be another door is blocked -the only way out is by squeezing past those trying to enter.

The politics at the heart of the works are most explicit in the simple display of a roomful of  industrial and agricultural equipment gathered from closing down sales in factories and warehouses -everything from filing cabinets via tunnelling bits, cement mixers, through to knitting machines. The post-industrial wreckage of an asset-stripped society. The machines remain, transplanted to a gallery and mounted on plinths, and scavenged four-by-twos, but nothing now can salvage the lives thrown away.

Nelson has also created a fictitious biker gang, made up of Gulf War vets: The Amnesiacs. Some of their bike parts are here, along with a camp fire, with fake flames. The Amnesiacs have had half their memories wiped by trauma. Some of Nelson’s installations are intended to be work constructed by The Amnesiacs as they try to rebuild their memories.

In Nelson’s recreation of one of his workshops (allegedly: after all, how many of us have ever seen or set foot in the original?) you get some idea of the influences behind all this - tattered sci-fi mags, pamphlets by Hakim Bey, heaps of salvaged detritus - a kind of acid anarchism. The anarchist theorist Hakim Bey’s concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone (a momentarily  liberated space )has some relevance here. The TAZ is recreated by Nelson as a realm of the imagination, as a form of resistance even when our  attempts to seize the Real are in retreat. (However problematic Bey’s lifestyle anarchism may otherwise be, the TAZ remains a useful battlefield idea.)

The final space in the exhibition shows us what, perhaps, a group of Gulf War vets might create as they try to recover what they’ve seen. We stumble into a room full of wire cells, and hundreds of disembodied/decapitated heads, faces contorted, faces at peace, faces alarmed. A conspiracy theorist rants in the background. There are resonances here of ISIS videos, Guantanamo Bay cells, an appalling, generalised abjection. In Nelson’s exhibition we stumble between worlds founded on delirium and worlds fallen into obsolescence.  Instead of trying to show what is, or protest what ought not to be, Nelson pushes nightmares to their extreme- worlds of crisis, madness, laughter, biker trash.

Jean Baudrillard once said that “authenticity  was…dissolved amid the random swirl of empty signals.”  Maybe that random swirl, which we might also call ideology, is what Nelson captures, the better we might sift through the ruins and make new patterns, plot new paths.

Someday There Will Be Machine Shops Full Of Roses
Tuesday, 11 April 2023 09:30

Someday There Will Be Machine Shops Full Of Roses

Published in Poetry

Nick Moss reviews Fred Voss's latest book of poetry, available here

There is a curiously valedictory tone to some of Fred Voss’s writing here. In fact “valedictory” doesn’t come close to it – I’m dancing round the issue. Some of these poems sound beaten, distressed, as if he’s had the shit kicked out of him one time too many.

Fred Voss has been, over seven books of poetry, the most unflinching documentarist of working life. All of that remains true, here. Many of the poems remind us also of how technically skilled Voss is – in particular that he has a rhythm and flow to his work that makes the writing of more renowned poets seem jarring and discordant. But it is part of the honesty that Voss seeks to give voice to that these are poems that feel as if they’re written by someone who’s been laid off one time too many, lost too many arguments. It doesn’t make them weak poems, but it’s a sadder, less defiant read.

As an example, the opening poem, Getting a Grip, about a workplace fight-cum-wrestling match, focuses on the fact that…

Richard can’t get a grip on making his house payments
in his battle to keep his house from being foreclosed
because he hasn’t had a raise in 4 years
Wes can’t get a grip on his marriage because his low wage
keeps him from putting down the bottle
but Richard and Wes can have a grip contest

…such that this, like so many of the poems here, becomes a simple blues. People squabble, people let life slip through their hands, because they have not enough to get by, because life’s taken another crap turn. There seems no way out. This is the US working class as a fragmented, divided force: ex-radicals now Trump voters, with Voss noting it all down in the hope that it will help him, and those around him, make sense of it, and move forward:

all my life
I’ve seen the working man beaten down
unions broken
wages falling
as CEO salaries skyrocket and stock brokers get rich

- Can Revolutions Start in Washrooms?

Voss is great at showing us what defeat means in practice. From the same poem:

and Earl on the turret lathe
keeps tying and retying his shoelaces that keep breaking
and blinks through his 30-year-old-glasses and finally
gives up his car
to ride the bus to work

and in his sketch of the homeless “…everywhere/sleeping and living on our sidewalks” and what it does to us to accept homelessness as a norm: “these homeless/ growing more and more human day after day/as we pass them by in our sleek shiny cars/ each day becoming more and more/ like beasts.” (Cadillac Beasts.)

For much of the book, though, there is simply an almost overwhelming sense of loss, of a relentless alienation from ourselves which has come to look like all that we are seemingly reduced to:

but I wish at age 62 I could tell these men
the real strength
is in the curve of the petal
of a Van Gogh sunflower
the stunted broken legs of a dwarfed Lautrec rising
from a Paris suicide floor to turn of the gas
and paint the kicking legs of cancan dancers.

- The Fist Or the Butterfly

Where to start in unpicking all that I think is problematic here? Marx had it that, under communism, we will hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, criticise after dinner. We’re not any closer, and it makes survival under capitalism no easier, to believe that “the real strength /is the swoop of the butterfly wing/around the rose.” Beauty as an end in itself can be the flash of blue of a kingfisher, or a goal by Mo Salah, music by Schubert or Slum Village. Nothing of our social conditions change as a result of our aesthetic choices, save that some poke more effectively at, rather than reinforce, the common sense of the times.

What will bring us closer to that morning/afternoon/ evening of communism is collective working-class action, and in the distancing phrase “these men” we start to feel the real essence of Voss’s sense of defeat, the slow stepping away from a belief in solidarity. Repeatedly, he tells us “I want to ask him if he has….written two thousand poems/and 7 novels/like I have “ (Someday There Will Be Machine Shops Full of Roses); “on a morning like this I am not just another factory worker/but the only machinist poet on earth” (Jim Morrison Thumbs a Ride on 4TH Street) “I wish the machinists around me in this shop/could feel the joy/I feel/each morning as I wait for the poems to come to me.” (Poetry Jackpot.)

Dry, tough, funny and kind

He does it so often that it starts to seem as if Voss is not the brutally observant poet of working-class life, the machinist who documents the pain of work as survival, but the ex-academic slumming it. He does it so often, in fact, that you want to punch him out. Luckily, in fact, so does he. The “Frank and Jane” poems, which run through the book, carry a light self-mockery which undermines the pompous self-glorifying poet who they nickname “Spark Spent”, the mild-mannered machinist who reveals himself to be Poet Man.

In the “Frank and Jane” poems we get a real sense of Voss, sharing his life with someone who knows how to go toe-to-toe with him when he is “feeling especially noble”, whose “bosses screamed at her /just as much as his bosses ever screamed at him” and who reminds him that he’s not the only one who’s “had it pretty rough.” (Solidarity in Hard Times.) The “Frank and Jane” poems are like the best of Bukowski – dry, tough, but ultimately , however cold-eyed, also funny and kind. A pint of cheap whisky to the Voss who emerges from this loss of purpose to pay tribute to classic cars “thick undented chrome bumpers/gleaming in the hot LA noon sun/Van Gogh sunflowers.” (Art That Roars.)

So Voss, close to retirement, remains a great poet, but one who has seen defeat after defeat, the ongoing triumph of reaction, has seen that “In America the unions might be busted/ and socialism a dirty word” but that all you can do is drag yourself back into the ring one more time, turn up for another shift, another day:

a knee is on the neck of freedom
but the young are marching
young as Rosa Park’s feet planted firmly
in the front of the bus
Frederick Douglass
wrestling his slave-master down to the ground

- Today the Young People Are Marching in the Streets

The resilience and anger in these poems feels real and true, because it feels so hard-won, because there are times it is on its knees. Voss is part-Springsteen, part-Whitman, and these are not poems of fake, easy triumphalism, but the result of a sometimes grim stocktaking, of what, over a working, writing, resisting life has been lost and won.

A machinist with a helping hand

They are written with skill and astuteness, but their essential strength is that they are political poems in the truest sense – they force you to engage with where we are and how that feels, how it sears under your skin, shows on the lines on your face. Voss, finally, still believes it is worth writing “so men and women can remember/ what these machines were like/ and how we treated the men who ran them/ so badly” (Hell in a Hardhat), however much “…at age 62/ I am so tired of flexing muscles and closing fists and/pretending/that real strength/ can’t lie in the beautiful truth of a poem.” (The Fist or the Butterfly.)

In the end, I loved this book, because when reaches for beauty it is astonishing, but also because I had to argue with it, fight against it, wrestle with it like the men in Getting a Grip fight with each other, because what it says: “if we workers don’t come together soon/ we’re all going to lose” (Getting a Grip) matters so much more than ever. Voss tells us though, that for him, for all of us if we are honest about the physical and emotional costs of our struggle, the poems come from a place that although it seemed so dark that there was no longer a shred of hope....

it was really
the crack
of dawn

- Trumpet Solo for Tomorrow.

Fred Voss is an important poet, because he has given testimony about what was done to us in the course of work and the loss of work under capitalism , and how we fought back, or tried to. In doing so he has captured us as ugly/beautiful as we are and as bright with possibility as we are. As much as he is a man of words, he is, as he describes a veteran machinist in this book, more than anything:

A machinist
who knew there was nothing in this world
more important
than a flesh and blood
helping hand.

- A Thousand Secrets of Steel in his Fingers.

We Are Here To Stay: Poems by Tawfiq Zayyad
Wednesday, 25 January 2023 09:27

We Are Here To Stay: Poems by Tawfiq Zayyad

Published in Poetry

At the start of 2023, the state of Israel installed a new government. This new ultranationalist religious cabinet included Itamar Ben-Gvir, a lawyer who had already established himself as a committed defender of far-right Jewish settlers.

Ben-Gvir, of the Religious Zionism faction, is a follower of the racist terrorist Meir Kahane and the mass murderer Baruch Goldstein (Goldstein carried out an armed attack on a room used as a mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994, killing 29 worshippers and wounding 125.) Kahane believed vehemently that “Democracy and Judaism are not the same thing.”

The new Netanyahu cabinet, with the Religious Zionism faction as its prop, appears determined to prove that such is the case. Ben-Gvir has been handed control of policing in the occupied territories. Religious Zionism’s leader, Bezalel Smotrich, now heads the Civil Administration in the occupied territories.  

Thus, the life of Palestinians, already a life policed and administered by force of arms, is now controlled and determined by the settler far-right. The success of the Israeli far-right comes about at the same time as, and is a consequence of, the collapse of any meaningful Israeli left-whether secular or Zionist.

This success of the Israeli far right, though, should come as no surprise. In April 2021 Human Rights Watch released a 213-page report, “A Threshold Crossed”, which determined that Israeli authorities were  committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution. This finding was based on their documentation of an overarching government policy to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians, coupled with grave abuses committed against Palestinians living in the occupied territory, including East Jerusalem.

Across Israel and the occupied territory, Human Rights Watch found that Israeli authorities have pursued an intent to privilege Jewish Israelis at the expense of Palestinians. They have done so by undertaking policies aimed at mitigating what they openly describe as the “demographic threat” Palestinians pose and maximizing the land available for Jewish communities, while concentrating most Palestinians in dense enclaves. The settler-colonial project which the state of Israel represents is stymied by this “demographic threat”-which is really the stalemate produced by ongoing Palestinian resistance.

The logic of Israel ‘s apartheid policies, and the focus on the demographic threat, was acknowledged by Moshe Dayan in 1956 when he stated:

A generation of settlement are we, and without the steel helmet and the maw of the cannon we shall not plant a tree, nor build a house. Our children shall not have lives to live if we do not dig shelters; and without the barbed wire fence and the machine gun, we shall not pave a path nor drill for water. - Times of Israel 28 April 2016. 

Dayan later stated, “Fundamentally a Palestinian state is an antithesis of the state of Israel: that is to say, the two are incompatible.” Thus, for all the lip service paid, post-the Oslo Accords, to a two state solution to the “Palestinian problem”, the logic of the settler-colonial project can only be towards a form of militarised apartheid – and a functioning democracy is ultimately an obstacle to that-such that the election of a far-right cabinet  and the ongoing erosion of democratic norms ultimately affecting the democratic norms of both Palestinian and Israeli society was the only logical end point. Depressing times, then.

Rising to meet the challenge

The publication by Smokestack Books of Tawfiq Zayyad’s poems is a reminder of a more hopeful period and provides a useful and inspiring demonstration of how the language of poetry can rise to meet the challenge of its times. Zayyad, born in 1929, in Mandatory Palestine, was a communist activist known as Abu el-Amin (‘The Trustworthy One’).

He was elected as mayor of Nazareth in 1975, and was co-author of a report on the torture of Palestinian prisoners which was the evidence base for the 1987 UN General Assembly "Report of the Special Committee To Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Population of the Occupied Territories", wherein the UN first fully acknowledged the torture and indefinite detention without trial which underpinned Israel’s penal policy in relation to the Palestinians. Zayyad was a member of Maki, the Israeli Communist Party, which sought to organise both Hebrew and Arab workers across national lines.

Zayyad is a very different poet to Mahmoud Darwish, widely seen as Palestine’s “national poet.” In a sense his work is cruder – it makes no effort to hide behind metaphor. For him dispossession is dispossession pure and simple. It is a brutal act done to further colonial aims. It is not cloaked in symbolism about lost Edens, as with Darwish, say, or Salem Jubran. It should be noted that Aida Bamia’s translation of these poems is somewhat rough and ready – which serves the poetry well on one level by allowing the rage at its heart to stand out – but seems occasionally misjudged (I doubt Zayyad would have described his gaolers as “pesky”  as her translation of “Evening Chat in Prison” has it.)

What stands out, though, is that this is a poetry written from a life of resistance, and that the language used is intended to be part of the process of resistance, not a means to prettify it or mystify it. In “Bitter Sugar”, for instance, Zayyad states that he writes “for the destitute” and all of the poems here demonstrate that same fidelity – the task is to exemplify the anger at dispossession in language that aims to be as harsh as the necessary struggle which Zayyad committed himself to. “And I bloody my usurper’s face/With poems sharp like knives.” Elsewhere, in “Behind Bars”, he says that “My poems pour/The cup of humiliation over your troops/And rub their faces in the mud.”

Bitter Sugar

Answer me,
Palestine, I call your wound drenching with salt.
I call it, screaming : let me melt away in it, then pour me.
I am your son, the tragedy left me here,
My neck under your knife.
I live on the rustle of nostalgia,
In my olive groves.
I write bittersweet poems for the paupers,
I write for the destitute.
I dip my pen deep in my heart,
In my veins.
I eat the hard steel wall,
I drink the October wind,
And I bloody my usurper’s face
With poems sharp like knives.
If the wreckage breaks my back,
I would replace it with a case
Made from the rocks of Hitteen.

Zayyad’s poem “Unadikum” (“I Shake Your Hand”) was set to music in the early 1980s. In 2021, it was adopted as a spontaneously chanted anthem by Palestinian demonstrators; “I did not disparage my homeland/Neither did I yield/I confronted my gaolers, alone, naked and barefoot.” It is difficult to imagine a time when such chants and such resistance will not yet again resonate in the face of militarised repression – but it helps to remember that the poem embodies a history of resistance across decades , in the face of brutality and betrayal, and was written by a man who was committed to a secular, revolutionary solution to the Palestinian struggle.

I Shake Your Hand

I implore you,
I shake your hands,
I kiss the ground on which you tread,
And I say: I will redeem you.
I offer you my eyesight,
The warmth of my heart I give you.
The tragedy I endure is my share of your plight.
I appeal to you,
I shake your hands.
I did not disparage my homeland,
Neither did I yield.
I confronted my gaolers, alone, naked, and barefoot.
My hand was bleeding,
Yet, I did not give up.
I maintained the grass over my forefathers’ tombs.
I implore you; I shake your hands!

That revolutionary tradition is not entirely defeated. In 2011 Israel was racked by large-scale strikes – social workers, doctors, railway workers against privatization  of education, health, and welfare services, and for public housing and for larger social-sector budgets. Among the slogans raised were “Tahrir Square is here in this town” and against “Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu”. If Israeli workers can, at least momentarily, recognise common cause with the Arab spring, nothing is then entirely lost. Zayyad’s goal was “To recuperate the future from the darkness of greed/Lest it be bought and sold”. (“Evening Chat in Prison”).

However bleak the times, however popular Netanyahu’s government of bigots may seem, it’s worth remembering that the success of Likud in building a coalition with the far right in the Knesset ought to at least put to death any remaining illusions – for the fragments of the Israeli left seeking to reorganise – that there can be any parliamentary solution to any of the political problems it faces or that adherence to left-Zionism is anything other than a slow train to the same destination.

Zayyad’s poetry tells of another possibility, a conception of justice through revolt: “Whoever robs the right of others by force/How can he protect his right when the scale tilts?”. Zayyad’s blunt, angry poetry also suggests that what so often now passes for a political poetry that seeks to cover over its politics and have it dancing behind the words, just out of view. is of no real value to us either politically or aesthetically.

 We Are Here To Stay: Poems by Tawfiq Zayyad, translated by Aida Bamia, Smokestack Books 2023, ISBN 9781739772260, is available here.